Labor, Land and Cooperatives in Cuba
The Cuban government has consciously incorporated worker cooperatives into its revolutionary project. This is not a discussion about the Cuban politics, as cooperativism can’t be confined by socialism. Rather, Cuba shows us very simply that if a government decides to support the development of worker-led coops, they can thrive.
In 1993 the Cuban government gave approximately 45 percent of the country’s farmland free of charge – inusufruct[i] – to farmers who were willing to produce food cooperatively in what are called Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs). This was not only a huge change in land structure, but in labor relations as well. The shift fueled a massive conversion of farm-workers to farm-owners.
Agrarian reform was one of the first laws enacted by Fidel Castro after the revolution began. Fifty percent ofthe land was nationalized and 100,000 landless peasants became landowners.[ii] One of the original forms of cooperative food production in Cuba was the Agricultural Production Cooperative (CPA), founded in 1977 by farmers who voluntarily pooled their resources and formed cooperatives. While both the Agrarian Reform and the establishment of CPAs helped democratize rural Cuba, the majority of farmland was still state-run and maintained a wage labor system where workers earned the lowest salary of all 16 sectors of the economy from the mid 70s through the mid 80s.[iii] In 1988 the state employed 635,000 farm workers[iv] and owned some 82 percent of the country’s farmland.[v] Most farm workers did not have access to the benefits of cooperative ownership and self-management that the CPS members enjoyed.
State farms were large-scale, high input, industrialized operations largely set up for export to the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba was forced to embark upon one of the most massive conversions to organic agriculture the world had ever seen. Suddenly with the loss of their primary trading partner and a fierce U.S. trade blockade, they had little access to chemical inputs, fuel for machinery or transport, or enough imported food to meet national demand. The country had no choice but to embrace low-input, labor intensive agriculture.
In order to incentivize food production and self-sufficiency based on this new low-input system, in 1993, the Cuban government broke up 60 percent of its large scale farming operations into “Basic Units of Cooperative Production” (UBPCs) and offered the land, free of charge for cooperatives. By 1995, there were 2800 UBPCs offering 266,000 cooperative jobs.[vi] The farmers don’t actually own the land and so this reform did not further redistribute land wealth. However, farmers become land stewards and fullworker-owners of the farm cooperative.
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Beyond land subsidies, UBPCs receive an array of support services provided by the state. Buildings, machinery, animals, irrigation systems and tools are sold to the cooperatives at affordable prices with low-interest loans, and become the private property of the farm.[vii] Farmers also work closely with state-run research institutes that introduce them to new agricultural technologies and systems.
Immediately after the creation of UBPCs, in an effort to further stimulate food production, markets were opened where farmers could sell their goods at prices set by supply and demand rather than by the state. Access to these open markets has allowed members of cooperative farms to rise to the top of the social pyramid, sometimes earning double what professionals (like doctors) make. The impact of this shift on farm earnings has been significant.
In light of the effect of open markets on social equality in Cuba, the cooperative model becomes all the more important in order to maintain a space for democratic participation within agricultural organizations. In the face of increasing profits, the cooperative structure serves as mechanism for more equal distribution of those profits among all members.
The Cuban government chose to support the growth of cooperatives by offering free land to UBPCs. In so doing, they created one of the most important new sectors of Cuban agriculture that encourages socially just labor relations.
[i] u•su•fruct: noun Etymology: Latin ususfructus, from usus et fructus use and enjoyment; circa 1630; The legalright of using and enjoying the fruits or profits of something belonging to another; The right to use or enjoy something
[ii] Murphy, C. (1999).Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis.Food First Development Report. Oakland, Food First/Institute for Foodand Development Policy.
[iii] Díaz, B. (1999).”Recent Agricultural Cooperativization: A Cuban Case Study.” InCubain the 1990s. edited by J. B. Lara. Havana,Instituto Cubano Del Libro.
[v] Murphy, C. (1999).Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis.Food First Development Report. Oakland, Food First/Institute for Foodand Development Policy.
[vi] Díaz, B. (1999).”Recent Agricultural Cooperativization: A Cuban Case Study.” InCubain the 1990s. edited by J. B. Lara. Havana,Instituto Cubano Del Libro.
[vii] Martín, Lucy. 2001. “Transforming theCuban Countryside: Property, Markets, and Technological Change.” In SustainableAgriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba. Oakland: Food First Books. 57-71.